Still alive: Artist Kris Martin takes on vulnerability and death at Smak


Critics have been quick to interpret Flemish artist Kris Martin’s new exhibition as corona-inspired, but he was obsessed with the uncertainty of life long before

If the bee disappears

On 7 March, Flemish artist Kris Martin finally experienced his first major solo exhibition in his homeland. It opened and closed in one week.

Covid-19 didn’t put Exit out of commission, though; it just postponed it. “Corona hasn’t changed much for me,” says Martin, as we stroll through his show at the Smak museum of contemporary art in Ghent. “The production of art requires seclusion, isolation.”

He’s not inspired by the pandemic either, he says. “It’s the other way around. Journalists regularly ask me whether my work is reflecting the sickness. I then point them to the dates.”

Indeed, almost all the works in Exit predate 2020. But “most of the works can in a sense be related to the corona crisis. That is easy to explain: I always try to touch on universal themes and problems.”

I have been obsessed with the notions of transience and death since I was a kid

Life and death are the common thread through his oeuvre. “I admit that my work can be quite difficult in terms of content; it is often about transience and death. I have been obsessed with those notions since I was a kid. I find it important, too, to allow a lightness in the form. It is a matter of finding the balance between heaviness and lightness. I don’t want to make anyone depressed.”

He succeeds wonderfully. “Mandi XLIV” consists of five boom barriers painted black that go up and down haphazardly, often to the bewilderment of the visitor. “Wanderer II” represents the shoe of a fallen First World War soldier. On the foot, which is still in the shoe, Martin has placed a gold coin so that the man can pay Charon to cross the Styx.

“Bee”, a gilded dead bee lying alone in a single room, is a pars pro toto for the threatened nature on Earth. “Miserere” consists of a radio, splattered with paint stains. Contrary to the ones on an average construction site, it doesn’t blare out pop hits. Visitors must get very close to hear the quiet sound of “Miserere” by 17th-century Italian composer Gregorio Allegri.

One of the most impressive works is “Still Alive”, a silver-plated bronze cast of his own skull. He gave the same title, six years later, to 34 drawings of that skull, created one drunken night.

“I’m only able to draw when I’m drunk,” he chuckles. Without looking at what his hands are doing, he emphasises. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they are great.

Martin’s sculptures have a strong visual power, from beautiful to funny to recalcitrant. But they also carry ideas for which you have to think beyond the imagery. That is why the 47-year-old artist is often described as a conceptual sculptor.

He disagrees. “None of my work is conceptual to me. I’m not concerned about that description, but I see myself as a very classic artist. Because, in the end, what I do is make an image.”

He accepts, he say, everything that is said about his work – “except that I push the viewer in the direction I want them to think, because I certainly don’t want that”.

For me Van Eyck is the birth of surrealism. Not Magritte, not Dalí – Van Eyck

The sad thing about the postponement of Exit is that it no longer coincides with the Jan Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent’s Fine Arts Museum, right across the street. That ground-breaking show was not able to re-open. Martin is a great admirer of the Flemish Primitive. He refers to him in “Eve & Adam”, and “Altar” is a metal frame that mimics the shape of Van Eyck’s masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece.

“I’m not an art historian, but for me Van Eyck is the birth of surrealism,” says Martin. “Not Magritte, not Dalí, but Van Eyck. You have a photographically correct representation of a world that does not exist to the extent that you are going to believe it.”

Martin is an architect by training but already knew in his second year of study that he would not become one. But he doesn’t regret it. “It is a great basic training that initiated me into many different subjects. Important, too: It taught me how to look.”

This has had direct influence on his works. “Knowledge of materials, sense of proportion, notions of strength. That lends me the opportunity to develop something that I know will not immediately collapse or blow away. I think that the sustainability of art is important. Because why do I make art? To make a living from it.”

It is almost fruitless to search for a building designed by Martin – but not quite. “There is one,” he admits. “I had a girlfriend whose father wanted to build a porch. With his elongated house, that was not a good idea. A good architect must be able to say that they are not going to do something. He had a budget of €50,000. I proposed a greenhouse: more beautiful and €40,000 cheaper.”

He smiles, a little. “I got my percentage on the €10,000, not on the €50,000. I’m a bad merchant.”

Exit by Kris Martin, until 3 January, Smak, Jan Hoetplein 1, Ghent

Photos, from top: “Bee” 2009; “Mandi VIII” 2006; “Still Alive” 2005, photos by Dirk Pauwels